Sacredness, Sex, Attachment, & The Ick Factor

Last weekend Benton Stokes and I led a conversation at Mississippi State University about the intersection of (Christian) faith and sexuality/gender difference. For us, this was actually about the inherent eternal value of LGBTQ+ people. We talked about love, really: how God’s love is unconditional (and no one else’s is). I’ll write more about the event in another post someday, but here are the musings I wrote to prepare. If you find them useful, please let me know and I’ll make them more coherent (and pleasurable to read).



If you are a human person (as you are) you will experience disappointing your parents or being disappointed by them. Disappointment is the experience of expecting one thing and getting another, lesser, thing. Like when you expect a loving response and get something else.

Expecting one thing, getting another, and adjusting your expectations is a constant cycle of life: awareness and adaptation.

This cycle of awareness and adaptation tends to be either unconscious or traumatic. You’re driving to the store, expect a green light, see a red light, and slam on the brakes. You don’t even think about it. That’s an unconscious kind.

Most of us live in a kind of subliminal panic caused by new awarenesses and the need to adjust to them. We may enjoy novelty, when we have some control over it, but we crave sameness. Because sameness doesn’t require adaptation, it is simply easier to manage. Less of our mental and psychic effort gets used when things don’t change.

(Since I’ve become a parent, I’ve become more sympathetic to the parents of LGBTQ+ people. As both a parent and an LGBTQ+ person myself, it’s like the ping-pong game that is my reasoning process has gained new players.)

That cycle of awareness and adaptation is based on attachment: if you’re not attached to an expectation, you don’t experience the need to adapt to a change.

Attachment to others is part of the natural process of growth. How fully and healthily we attach to our parents and primary caregivers strongly affects our ability to love, feel stability, adapt to change, and all those other experiences of being human.

As parents, our own childhood attachment experiences affect our relationship with our children. If we attached well and healthily, we are more likely to do the same with our own children. If our earliest relationship with our parents made us rigid or fearful or uncertain, as parents we are liable to be rigid or fearful or uncertain with our own kids.

When that horrible time comes that we realize our own children are becoming sexual beings, we hasten to shape their behavior and their understanding of sexuality. I say “horrible” because probably no parent is completely comfortable with the child’s developing sexuality, partly because no parent is completely comfortable with her own sexual desires.

As a parent, one’s discomfiting concern about the child’s sexuality can be displaced by more comfortable concern about her finding a suitable partner, a good job, a healthy family life; these are nonsexual symbols of your kid’s solid attachments (and a heck of a lot more comfortable to think about than your kid having sex).  

When a teen becomes sexually active, the parent tends to focus on potential outcomes that affect the mental picture of the child as a partnered, employed, family-haver rather than on the child as a sexual being.

Parents don’t ask, “Is the sex you’re having good? Do you feel secure with your partner? Are you getting your needs satisfied?” They ask, “Are you being safe? Taking (birth control and std) precautions?”

(An aside: I remembered our audience was young when there was embarrassed tittering and blushing at the mention of sex. Sweet!) 

As adults, we tend to not think about other people’s specific sex lives unless we are confronted by them: comparing, contrasting, advising, or working out our own desires.

We tend to assume that others’ sexual activity is approximately the same as our own.

When we realize that someone else’s sexual activity is outside our personal boundaries, our gut response is usually “ick.” I call this the “Ick Factor.” When activities (sexual or not) are beyond our personal acceptable boundaries, we emotionally assign negative value to those activities. “Ick” is an absolutely natural response. In my experience, the “Ick Factor” is the feeling least likely to be overcome with logic.  

Part of parents’ problem with a child coming out as gay (or unexpectedly gendered) is that they are confronted by the child’s sexuality. Suddenly they imagine the child as a sexual being.

No basically sane parent wants to imagine her own child as a sexual being.

When the child fits heteronormative expectations, the (heterosexual) parent can avoid imagining what the child does during sexual activity. Remember: we don’t usually think about other people’s sex lives to begin with, so if the kid is roughly like us we don’t have to think about it at all.

When the child does not fit the parent’s own assumptions about sexuality, the parent is “forced” to imagine what the child does during sex.

Here’s the problem with all this: Our deeply assigned, unconscious, negative valuing affects our response to our child.  Awareness and adaptation are often painful for everyone involved, and always stretch the attachment, at least for a while.

If your toddler curiously picks up dog poop and smells it, plays with it, and smears it around, you’re likely to be horrified. You won’t necessarily think your kid has done something immoral or “bad”, but if you have a deep “ick” response to the enjoyment of dog poop, you’re going to feel “ick” before you affectionately think “oh look at my healthy curious child who now could use a bath!”

If your daughter is impregnated, you have to deal with your immediate judgement of her Beyond-My-Boundaries behavior. If she gets arrested for something you wouldn’t do, you have to deal with your first response to her Beyond-My-Boundaries behavior.

When a child comes out as gay or unexpectedly gendered, the heteronormative parent is forced to 1) acknowledge the child as a sexual being (which the parent would prefer not to do), 2) confront someone else’s sexual activity as unlike one’s own, 3) deal with one’s judgement of the child’s Beyond-My-Boundaries behavior, and 4) adjust the mental picture of the child’s healthy and happy life.

That’s a lot of adapting, even for the most loving parent. 

In the imperfectly loving parent, the Ick Factor can overwhelm the ability to adapt. And when the parent has associated the feeling of “ick” with immorality or sin, that unconscious “ick” can become firmly bound to the conscious avoidance of immorality and sin.

Every human parent is imperfectly loving, both of herself and of her child.

Every human person is imperfectly loving, both of himself and of his child.

God, on the other hand, is perfectly loving.

God is always glad to see you.

God always has time for you.

God isn’t freaked out by your being a sexual creature.

God is never forced to imagine what you do in bed.

God doesn’t have to adjust God’s picture of your future.

God doesn’t wonder whether you’re wearing different underwear than expected.

God’s “personal boundaries” aren’t threatened by your activity.

God isn’t threatened at all.

God is always attached to you, and isn’t hurt by your lack of attachment.

God is concerned about your health and well-being, and is invested in your health and well-being, but doesn’t feel like a failure if you’re a mess.

And above all: God doesn’t live in a cycle of awareness and adaptation.

God knew all this before you did, so isn’t surprised.

God already knows that you are an eternal being living a creaturely existence.

God already knows that, as an eternal being, you are sacred.

You are sacred to God.

You are God’s own creation, and if we have healthy egos, we cherish what we create.

You are cherished by God.

So this question about the intersection of faith and sexuality or gender identification isn’t really a question about God at all.

The only two legitimate questions about the intersection of faith and sexuality or gender identification are these:

1) How should I live out my sacredness--my eternal beingness--in a world of creatures who are constantly in the natural and normal panic of awareness and adaptation?


2) As a creature who is constantly in the natural and normal panic of awareness and adaptation, how should I live out my understanding that every other person is sacred too?